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Tensions High During Muslim Hearings

Bill Clark/Roll Call

A Congressman was brought to tears at an emotional and tense House hearing Thursday on radicalization among Muslim Americans, setting the tone for the panel’s Democrats, who spent much of their allotted time protesting that the hearings were being held.

Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, fought his emotions as he shared the story of a Muslim 9/11 victim at the Homeland Security Committee hearing.

“Mr. Hamdani bravely sacrificed his life to try to help others on 9/11,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.”

Ellison’s remarks early in the four-hour hearing weren’t the only show of emotion. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) offered the sharpest criticism, calling the inquiry a “waste of time” before panel Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) said her time was up.

For the hundreds of people who lined up hours before the hearing to watch the proceedings, the partisan debate that ensued may have been a lesson on how Capitol Hill works.

Muslim advocacy and civil rights groups raised concerns that the hearings would be a “witch hunt” against American Muslims. Instead, Thursday’s hearing was mostly a partisan debate over whether such hearings are appropriate. Those watching the hearing had been warned that interruptions would not be tolerated, but audience members still applauded as lawmakers traded partisan shots.

Republicans defended King, who said he held the hearing to highlight rising radicalization among American Muslims and a lack of willingness in that community to report it.

Democrats guided witnesses to question that premise. Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca did so, saying he was “overwhelmed” by the Muslim community’s interest in working with him. “I believe Muslims are cooperating much more outside of organizations as well as inside,” he said.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez dueled with another witness, Muslim conservative Zuhdi Jasser, over his criticism of civil rights groups that advise Muslims to seek legal counsel before speaking to federal law enforcement.

“By what legal principle do you assert that any minority should waive that American principle?” the California Democrat asked.

Republicans criticized their counterparts for cloaking the debate in political correctness by questioning the constitutionality of targeting a specific group. Several Democrats suggested a broader hearing that would look at extremism of all kinds.

“I cannot help but wonder how propaganda about this hearing focusing on the American Muslim community will be used by those who seek to find a new generation of suicide bombers,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the panel’s ranking member.

But Rep. Paul Broun said such arguments miss the point: that al-Qaida and other organizations are successfully radicalizing youth in Muslim American communities.

“We need to know exactly who our enemy is. We need to focus on that enemy and not let political correctness deter us from that,” the Georgia Republican said. “I think political correctness is also an enemy.”

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